A week ago Saturday, October 5, the Wall Street Journal ran an essay by Leon Botstein, college president and conductor. Title? “The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music.” Theme? Classical music is healthy, and not at all declining. Content? One myth after another.

I couldn’t post about this here, because I didn’t have time. But the myths have to be exploded. For instance:

…looking out at the audience at most classical music concerts in the United States, one sees a crowd that is largely middle-aged, verging on the geriatric. This has set off alarms within the music community, whose members are quick to blame the loss of a younger generation of listeners for the sorry state of classical music, waning ticket sales and a record market that has all but disappeared.

Memories are deceptive. Classical music has never been the passion of the young. It is an acquired taste that requires both encouragement and education, like voting or drinking Scotch. And in fact, more young people today are playing classical instruments than ever before, according to conservatory enrollments.

Well, that last part is true. Conservatory enrollments are healthy. Younger people are playing classical music, though they’re not going to classical concerts. (A provocative mystery.)

But has the audience always been the same age it is now? (Which in fact means older than middle-aged.) This is a persistent myth. I used to believe it, since music biz veterans repeated it so confidently. Then I started asking for data, and found that there wasn’t any. Then I started finding data that exploded the myth.

I’ve written about all of that here, more than once. Studies from 1937, 1955, and 1966 show an audience with a median age in its thirties, and in the first two studies in its early thirties. Studies done in the 1970s, which I haven’t talked about here, show an audience older than that, but nowhere near as old as it is now. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts show the audience growing older between 1982 and 2002.

I’ve linked to much of this in the in-progress “Resources” sidebar on this blog. There’s also voluminous anecdotal evidence for a younger audience. This includes stories about the women in their teens and twenties who were Geraldine Farrar’s screaming “Gerryflapper” fans at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s. And also the famous passage about Beethoven’s Fifth in E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, depicting people in their teens and twenties attending a performance, without one word about how this would have been unusual. Because it wasn’t.

Next, from Botsein:

The heralding of the demise of classical music is based on flimsy evidence. The number of concert venues, summer festivals, performing ensembles and overall performances in classical music and opera has increased exponentially over the last four decades. There are currently nearly 400 professional orchestras in America, according to the League of American Orchestras, while 30 years ago there were 203. There are up to 500 youth orchestras, up from 63 in 1990. The number of orchestra concerts performed annually in the U.S. has risen 24% in the past decade, to 37,000. Ticket-sale income from orchestra performances grew almost 18%, to $608 million, between the 2004-’05 and 2005-’06 seasons.

I’m surprised, quite frankly, to read this, from a man with credentials as a scholar. First, there’s no single baseline for all of Botstein’s comparisons. He compares the present era with 40 years ago, with 30 years ago, and with 10 years ago, and then compares the 2005-06 season with 2004-05. That’s not a sound use of statistics, especially since, from one decade to another, he’s comparing different things — the number of orchestras with the number of concerts with the size of ticket-sale income. He scrambles all of them together and comes up with a shiny, happy picture, which, superficially at least, seems to be a picture of enormous growth.

But he doesn’t mention the decline in orchestra attendance and (at least for the largest orchestras) alsio in ticket sales between the 1990s and now. (Note that attendance and ticket sales aren’t quite the same thing, since orchestras give both paid and free concerts — free concerts, for instance, for schoolkids, or in a city park on the Fourth of July.) So maybe orchestras saw growth, even explosive growth, from 40 to 15 years ago, and then began to decline. (My figures come from data made public by the League of American Orchestras, and also from numbers I’ve been shown privately.)

In the last two years there’s been an uptick in sales and attendance, but it hasn’t come close, from what I’ve been told, to making up the long-term decline. And it’s too early to say that the trend has been reversed. What happened, as far as I can see, is that orchestras — seeing that they had a problem — started using business marketing tools more intensively than they ever had before. As a result, they sold more tickets to their core audience, and to people much like their core audience.

This is a complex matter, which I’ll have to discuss in more detail in another post, but you can’t really say, if you know what’s going on, that orchestras are still in any period of long-term expansion. (My data here comes largely from private sources, though in an obscure press release, not available online, the New York Philharmonic let slip some impressive gains.)

But back to Botstein. There’s one other problem with his shiny, happy portrait. We don’t know what all that explosive growth — in the number of orchestras and the number of concerts they give, starting 40 years ago — really means. Botstein doesn’t explore this at all. Were there more orchestras because there was more demand for classical music? Or was there pent-up demand, in cities that didn’t have orchestras, so that when orchestras appeared in those cities, ticket sales were more or less automatic?

And why did the orchestras appear? Because America grew richer, so more cities could afford an orchestra? Because our population increased, so more cities had whatever critical mass it takes to support an orchestra? And what’s the relationship between the growth in the number of orchestras and the growth of our population? Do we have more orchestras per capita than we used to, or the same number, or fewer? It seems to be more — just quickly using figures i have on my computer, I found that the population increased 73% from 1972 to 2002, while (using Botstein’s figures) the number of orchestras more or less doubled. Adjusting for the increase in population, that’s no more than a 9% rise.

And orchestras aren’t the whole story. If we look at established chamber music series over the past 20 years, we’d almost certainly see a drop in ticket sales. I say “almost certainly” because I don’t know if anyone has collected any data, but in many conversations with people who run chamber music series, I hear about the audience declining. One venerable institution that I know about has lost from 10 to 20 subscribers, approximately, each year for the past decade. That doesn’t sound like much, until you add up the numbers. This group has around 700 subscribers now, and they used to have 800. That’s a 9% drop over 10 years, and there’s no sign that it’s ending.

I guess I’m not refuting myths here. I’m just supplying the kind of data that everyone ought to have before joining this discussion.

But here are more myths:

So why all the hand-wringing? Much of it stems from another false assumption: that classical music was once profitable, but is now failing financially. This distorted expectation is rooted in the peculiar experience of the last decades of the 19th century, after the rapid extension of literacy in Europe and America. Before recording became commercially viable in 1902, when the Columbia and Victor companies joined forces and issued discs, sales of instruments particularly the piano), concert tickets and sheet music were thriving businesses. With the advent of recorded music — first the player piano, then the radio, the 78 rpm record, the long-playing record and the digital CD — novel, albeit brief, opportunities for making money followed. These circumstances do not represent the broader historical norm. Classical music never held the promise that it could enlist a mass audience. From its birth as a secular and church-based art form, classical music has depended on patronage and philanthropy, not on income from sales either at the box office or in record stores.

First, I think it’s a myth that anyone — or, cerhe tainly, any large number of people — ever asserted what Botstein outlines here. I’ve never seen anyone do it. It’s true that classical recording used to be profitable, and also true that for the most part it’s not profitable now, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the field at large. Of course concerts don’t make a profit. Everybody knows that. If recordings now aren’t profitable, I’d take that as one sign of classical music’s decline — classical recordings apparently sell many fewer copies than they used to, which would have to be one big reason why they don’t make a profit. (I say “apparently” because, at least for now, all I have here is anecdotal numbers.)

But this isn’t the most important issue, when we talk about classical music’s finances, and neither is any question of whether classical music ever had or ever needs a mass audience. Porsche stays in business selling cars very few people buy. The only question is whether classical music can support itself.

And here the numbers are sobering. The percent of income classical music institutions make from ticket sales has been declining for nearly a century, and maybe for longer. In 1937, when there was a major study of American orchestras (which is why we know the age of the audience back then), orchestras made from 70% to 90% of their income from ticket sales. It’s been declining ever since — and not, by the way, simply because of the vast expansion in orchestra seasons made possible in the ’60 by Ford Foundation funding, which went along with a nice bump in musicians’ salaries. The decline in the percentage of income coming from ticket sales had begun before that, and continued afterward. You can blame Baumol’s Dilemma (aka the “cost disease”), or find some other explanation, but clearly there’s long-term financial pressure on classical music institutions, which leads to repeated crises.

The behind the scenes financial picture at big orchestras and opera companies often isn’t pretty, and blind optimism — “we’re not supposed to make money; we’ve always been supported by donors” — doesn’t begin to provide any answers. Where’s the next generation of donors going to come from, if there might not be a next-generation audience?

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  1. Jason says

    That massive jump in the number of “youth orchestras” from 63 to 500 (actually “400-500”, according to the League’s own 2005-06 figures) really stands out. Is Professor Botstein trying to imply that 437 brand-new youth symphonies were founded in the last 15 years?

    I suspect all that happened was a not-so-subtle change in the way the League counts and classifies “youth orchestras,” probably to include existing middle and high school curricular ensembles as well.

    All this indicates to me is that an advocacy group like the League of American Orchestras should no longer be trusted for unbiased statistics on the current state of musical life in America. After all, one does not ask the tobacco lobby how many people died of lung cancer this year.

    Jason, that’s good thinking, and I can’t blame you for being suspicious. But I know a lot of people at the League, and I think they’re honest. They’ve also gone beyond what might have been their old policy, to put a good face on everything, and now want to give honest answers.

    Their problem, though, is that they don’t have good statistics. They didn’t gather them properly in the past, and so everything they have has to be used with caution. They know this, and have been trying to do better. It’s a massive job.

  2. Upstater says

    I live not far from Bard College, Botstein’s fiefdom. He has a history of mythical beliefs, such as that local college students and recent graduates were unsightly and should be either kept in the dorms or gentrified out. He lives in the ivory tower where everyone loves classical music. It’s just a very small tower.

  3. says

    When I read Botstein’s piece I hoped you’d respond, since you’ve done the research that disproves a number of his claims. A few quick comments:

    1. When counting ticket sales per season do we generally count the number of tickets sold, or the number of individuals who purchased tickets? With the gradual and inevitable decline of the subscription model it’s hard to know where the change is happening. For instance, you might see a decline in number of tickets sold but an increase in the number of individual ticket buyers if the losses in subscription sales are in part made up by single ticket sales to people who only attend one concert a year. I would love to see those numbers broken out.

    2. Botstein’s use of conservatory enrollment figures to measure how many young people are playing clasical music is totally bogus. My impression is that most students who attend conservatories pay to attend, so increasing enrollments is a good business model. Plus, students enrolling in conservatories now were born in or grew up during the 90s, a period of dramatic economic growth in which children were told to follow their dreams. Now that economic boom also probably made it easier for parents to afford things like piano lessons for their kids, so it may well be that more young people play classical music, but Botstein’s methodology is useless.

    3. I’m interested in your number of orchestras per capita calculation. I’d be very interested to see it broken out by socioeconomic status–my guess is that the population effect on number of orchestras is not based on the size of the whole population but on the size of some socioeconomic segment of the population.

    Good thinking on all counts, Galen. Clearly we think more clearly on this blog than Leon did.

    On your first point: It’s really crucial to have some single measure when we compare classical music ticket sales from one year to another. Or rather a series of single measures. You’re absolutely right to say that the number of purchasers and the number of tickets sold are separate measures. One might go up while the other goes down. Add to this the amount of money made from ticket sales and you have a third thing we have to track.

    This gets especially tricky when orchestras talk about subscription sales. I’ve seen boasts that “subscriptions have increased 48%,” or some such number. Do they mean there are 48% more subscribers, or 48% more subscription tickets sold, or 48% more money made from subscription tickets? If they sell very short, very cheap subscriptions, they might show a notable increase in subscribers, while selling fewer subscription tickets and taking in less money.

    About your third point: To me, this is an important question. Regardless of conservatory enrollments, there clearly are large numbers of kids studying classical instruments. I don’t know if the number has gone up or down in the past decade. But one key measure of health here is that I haven’t heard reports, at least in the US, of any shortage of people playing the less popular instruments (viola, bassoon). I’ve seen reports like that from Britain — they’ve been in the British press — but haven’t verified them.

    So why does this happen? Why are kids studying classical music, when most kids aren’t even listening to it? I don’t know the answer. Would love to hear some guesses/speculation/informed answers.

    Added later: I’ve e-mailed someone I know at a major foundation, suggesting that they fund a study of this.

  4. says

    I attended the Aspen festival this summer, and I can tell you it was striking how few students I saw attending concerts. In conversation, I would often ask “What kind of music do you listen to?” I found that most of the students rarely listened to classical, rock, or any sort of music.

    It’s sounds a bit crazy, but can we really trust conservatory musicians to be music lovers? I was surprised at how apathetic their attitudes were about any music other than what they were playing.

  5. says

    To quote Greg’s question:

    “So why does this happen? Why are kids studying classical music, when most kids aren’t even listening to it? I don’t know the answer. Would love to hear some guesses/speculation/informed answers.”

    I can make a couple of guesses at this. The first guess is that playing a musical instrument is part of the participatory arts experience that we’re seeing becoming a real force in arts and culture. The arts experience is more and more about creation, not consuming.

    The second guess I would make is that after being innundated with music as players, students need a break. Young adults arguable have shorter attention spans, which has already been stretched to the limit. I can attest from my own experience, after spending hours in rehearsal and in the practice rooms every day, very often the last thing I wanted to do was go to a concert.

    Hi, Wendy. Good point. Some of my Juilliard students say they never even listen to classical music.

    What I’d really like to know is about younger people who’ve never studied a classical instrument. They don’t, as a rule, pay any attention to classical music at all. So how did a subculture develop that goes against the tastes of most others in its age group, and studies classical music?

  6. says

    Thank you for this blog. It is interesting to follow, since you ask all the right questions and are searching for the truth.

    First of all, I am not of the opinion that music has to be popular to be good, but I don’t think that is your opinion either. But it is clear that all music needs some kind of audience to exist.

    I studied classical music a few years ago. I can only speak from impressions from my own country (Norway), but it could apply to the US as well.

    – Number of students in conservatories:

    It is true that many young people want to study classical music. I think this has a lot to do with “following the dream” as Galen H. Brown pointed out. 40-50 years ago it was more important to get an education that could get you a job, and maybe many good classical musicians chose an other education. I imagine there were more good amateur musicians back then.

    But in my country I know (allthough I don’t have any statistics) that the number of young people applying to study classical music in conservatory has dropped the last decade. At least for classical piano. At the same time the number applying to study jazz and rock music has increased tremendously. Jazz and rock has rather recently been accepted in the conservatories as serious studies, and that could be the reason. But – for classical music – the few people that are really interested in becoming classical musician – they often have a very high level, I guess the level is higher than it was 50 years ago.

    – why young people studying classical music don’t listen to it: Well I think they do, but today the boundaries between genres are not like they were, and maybe non-existent. Young classical musicians today are just as interested in other genres. I think it goes the other way to: rock musicians can listen to classical music. To speak for myself (although I am not that young anymore; I am the median age of the 1937-concert-audience) I don’t go so much to classical concerts anymore, at least not if the program consists of famous masterpieces. I love classical music, but if I go to a concert I want to hear something new, contemporary music or other genres like jazz, and not the classics which I already know quite well.

    Thanks, Karstein, both for the compliment and for the interesting thoughts. I think you’re right. Contemporary music, in all its forms, is what’s going to interest younger people. Including older younger people (so to speak), like yourself. That makes sense. Of course younger people relate to contemporary culture. It’s only natural.

    So the classical music world will have to become a lot more contemporary if it wants to attract and hold a younger audience. And at the same time, it has to stay the way it is, to keep the audience it has! It’ll be interesting to see how it learns to go in both directions at once.

  7. Andy Buelow says

    I wonder if part of the reason for young people not attending classical concerts is lifestyle changes and the different kind of listening classical music involves. I am a rock and jazz fan as well as a classical music lover, and I find that classical music requires a different energy and concentration to listen to. An old boss of mine used the phrase “active listening.” It’s the difference between a nice stroll outside, relaxing and taking in the scenery, and mountain climbing by a practiced climber.

    I can listen to rock while cleaning the house, I can listen to jazz in the car, but to truly appreciate classical music I need to carve out space and time where I can sit and pay attention to it and nothing else. I would be chagrined to admit how infrequently that happens these days, other than at concerts. When I do take the time, it’s remarkable what I get out of it.

    Which brings me to another myth I have often heard propulgated by orchestra conductors, administrators and musicians: “you don’t need to know anything about classical music to appreciate it.”

    I have heard that one for years and it does a disservice to both classical music and the neophyte listener. If I have rarely or never encountered classical music, I’m not going to get anything more out of hearing it than I would hearing someone speak a language I don’t understand.

    Truth be told, classical music can be a real workout for the ear and brain. It takes familiarization, just like learning a new language or starting a new exercise routine. You don’t go out and climb Mount Rainier, even below the glacier levels, without learning something about high altitude exercise.

  8. says

    Ive heard myths about european students and normal civilian youths being more exposed to classical music than that of americans. I’ve tried to look up research on their behavior and choice differences for those who listen to classical music and those who don’t, but could never really find solid evidence. The only thing I could find is the amount of schools and colleges and orchesrtas that are there compared to america. What is your opinion, because I would really like to know. It interests me very much.

    Excellent question, Isaiah. I’d like to know myself. I’ve been hearing that the audience at Berlin Philharmonic concerts is young, and that this is also true at the Proms in London. I’ve never been to either, so I can’t say firsthand. Does anyone reading this know more than I do? Please enlighten all of us!

    On the other side, I’ve seen research from Europe that shows the same problems we have here. The Danish Radio Orchestra reports the same aging of its audience that National Endowment studies report here, over a number of years. Actually, the Danish audience was aging faster. And a German researcher did some demographic projections, and predicted a sharp drop in the size of the German orchestra audience in the future, based on the age it is now.

    Plus, European students I have at Juilliard have been telling me for years that from their point of view the same things are happening in Europe as are happening in the US, though perhaps more slowly.

    But we need a lot more information. If anyone has it, or any leads on it, or any helpful thoughts about this, please tell us!